Equality For All But Atheists

A couple days before the historic People’s Climate March in New York City, I was approached on the street by a woman who was putting up fliers about the march and who asked me if I was planning on participating. (I live in Connecticut and NYC is a relatively quick train ride away.) I told her that I could not make it, but that I am a member of some groups gathering troops to go and march together under the humanist banner.

She responded that she was a humanist. I was thrilled. Another one encountered in the wild. But without taking a breath she continued, “actually I do not know what a ‘humanist’ is. I do know that I don’t call myself a feminist because I believe in the equality of men and women.”

She asked me to explain what humanism is, since she calls herself one but doesn’t actually know what the term means. I started to explain about how humanism is an ethical tradition, but she interrupted me to continue: “I believe in the equality of all people. I extend that equality to plants and animals. We need to recognize the spirit of all living things and their equality.”

I was starting to like this woman, though thinking that it wouldn’t hurt her to interrupt less and listen more. I liked where she was coming from. I also believe in the equality of all people. I wouldn’t use the word “spirit,” but I also believe animals and plants need to be valued. We need to recognize our symbiotic relationship before it is too late. But I’m getting off topic. After decreeing the equality of all living things, my newly discovered humanist abruptly took us in an unexpected and unsettling direction.

I think atheism is the biggest evil facing our society today. Atheists are grotesque.”

Where did that come from?

I am not going to relay the details of how our conversation ended. I will say I did not reveal that she was talking to an atheist. She didn’t really give me an opportunity. But there are a few aspects of this exchange worth talking about.

To begin with, this is not the first time the “humanist” label has been used by someone who doesn’t understand the history and current usage of the world. Just last week, Joseph Gordon Levitt made waves when he tweeted about how he learned about the definition of humanism. I do wonder how this woman would feel if she knew that what the label embraced describes a movement of consciousness presently chock full of self-described atheists.

I do regret not relieving her of her ignorance. But I’m not sure if, with the opportunity to do it over again, I would do anything differently.

On reflection, I believe the reason I didn’t say anything was because of her use of the words “evil” and “grotesque.” I think I was worried that someone who used such words to describe a group of people could conceivably turn violent if made aware that she was unwittingly aligning herself with such a group. Combine that with the simultaneous knowledge that she was speaking to such an evil, grotesque person, and I had no idea how extreme her reaction would be. This is a situation every atheist faces when choosing when, whether, and to whom to reveal their beliefs. And not always do you have such a clear understanding of the other’s position on atheism before opening (or not opening) your mouth.

But even that fear and misunderstanding of atheism isn’t what most concerns me about this conversation. What most concerns me, is that this is a woman who claims boldly that she believes in the inherent equality of all people—who even includes plants and animals in this equality. Yet, atheists are grotesque “things” off the equality spectrum that she assigns to the entire universe. How can these two convictions exist together in one person? How can a person who stridently advocates for recognizing the equality of all—including non-human life—viciously and categorically leave out a vast and growing group of people?

I hope this woman met the humanist contingent at the climate march, because I believe the climate march is exactly the kind of space where her hateful beliefs might begin to change. Ideally she met a humanist and commiserated about the state of environmental justice and hatched plans to make it right. Ideally they bonded over their concern for the environment (if only because of its impact on us humans). Ideally then, and only then, did she ask what humanism was. Because getting the answer then maybe startled her enough to reevaluate her beliefs even the tiniest bit.

This opportunity, albeit fantasy in this case, is why I want to talk about the climate march. Much has been said of the march itself and I don’t need to add my voice to that chorus except to say that I support its goals and hope it is the beginning of some real change in policy and attitude when it comes to making and keeping our planet healthy. I do want to talk about what the march represents beyond climate change.

At the march there were likely representatives of almost every incarnation of the human experience. 400,000 people of every race, age, gender, religion, and even politics marched in NYC and thousands more marched in at least 166 parallel demonstrations around the world. Immigrant rights groups came. So did labor unions. Student groups, seniors, artists, scientists, native communities, and, yes, faith groups. Conservatives marched too, though they may have kept a low profile.

The humanists did assemble and marched among a larger group of interbelief participants. That means there were humanists marching alongside Muslims who were marching alongside Sikhs who were marching alongside Jews who were marching alongside Mennonites. And it doesn’t end there. Everyone in the interbelief contingent was marching alongside the other groups assembled because of their commitment to environmental justice.

For me, humanism is about equality. The core challenge humanists face is realizing that equality. The increasing support for the environmental justice movement, demonstrated by the turnout and coverage of the People’s Climate March excites me for that realization. Environmental justice is a worthy and important cause on its own merits and that conversation should be held loudly and with immediacy. But the conversation also provides an important opportunity for realizing human equality.

We all live on this planet together. We all experience the effects of climate change and environmental ravishing differently, unique to our own circumstances, but we all face the same problem. So we all have a role to play in the solution. The conversation we all must have about the solutions for environmental justice is an opportunity for even more. It is an opportunity for people who are different—who have different ideas, different life experiences, different beliefs—to meet each other through their similarities. When we meet because of a shared problem our differences become an afterthought. The differences are still there, and they can be discussed later, but our relationships will form before our differences have a chance to drive us apart. And with those relationships formed, we have a real chance to realize equality.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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4 thoughts on “Equality For All But Atheists

  1. First of all, I’m so sorry you had an experience that made you feel judged and vulnerable and unable to share your truth. But I love these thoughts. When people hear that I’m focusing on Ecology in seminary, invariably the first is question is “what does THAT have to do with faith?”

    Well, for me, it has everything to do with faith, and certainly not just my own. You’re right, we all live on this planet together. Climate change affects Christians just as much as it affects atheists or Muslims or Buddhists, etc. Not only do we all have a role to play in the solution to climate change, but I believe that our differing perspectives will only help us get to that answer. We all come at the problem from a different angle and tackle it in our own particular way. Putting these efforts together may be the only hope we have.

  2. Christi,

    Thank you.

    Not only will working together help because of the different angles from which we approach the problem, but it will make us more efficient. Rather than everyone working on the problem alone, we can share resources to attack the problem and have a greater impact.

    I believe that all social justice problems are perfect arenas for people of all beliefs to come together. But environmental issues are especially important because, as you say, they effect every person on the planet. It does not matter if you are rich, poor, Jewish, Jain, liberal, libertarian, young, or old, climate change is your problem.

  3. I couldn’t help but wonder after reading your description of this encounter if this woman was in their early/mid 20’s–wild eyed and out to change the world–or someone with a bit more life under their belt? I ask this in part because her comment about the reason for believing she was a humanist and not a feminist struck me as very Millenial/Gen Y in their perspective: “I do know that I don’t call myself a feminist because I believe in the equality of men and women.” My first through was really, this is what they think feminism means! Ugh!

    If they were a young person, then I’m honestly not surprised they had no idea what humanism stands for, much less feminism. As someone who spends most of their time around college-aged students (I’m a Phd student and adjunct here in NYC), I am often amazed at just how little this current generation of 20-somethings know about the world. It struck me that this sounds like another case of what I have come to call FPSS, or failed primary school syndrome. But that also made me think this is an excellent teachable moment.

    So I am curious why you chose to not engage this woman further, and why you suggest you would not do anything different if you had to do it over? To me, this seems like a moment ripe for teaching and knowledge sharing, but it seems you read it differently, and I’m curious why.

    I ask this especially in the context of climate issues. As someone who was at the march and who studies religious fundamentalists and the politics of climate change in the US, conflict is a given. While it is often messy and painful, having serious discussions with radically different theological perspectives is a must for interfaith climate dialogue from my personal experience (I focus a lot on Young Earth Creationism). I wonder what your take would be on something like that if the context of your interaction with someone was not rejection of atheism or humanism, but rather rejection of climate change? Do you run into humanists who reject climate change? If so, how do you engage with them?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts, and enjoyed the piece.

  4. Wendy, I love how you end this piece by advocating that humans come together over the common concern of environmental degradation, work on building relationships, and with respect in place then address their differences.

    I wonder though, how much the rhetoric of equality will accomplish. That the woman that you met does not identify with feminism because she believes in the equality of all men and women is telling. I read this as her interpreting feminism as claiming the superiority of women. While this may be the perspective of some feminists (since they are by no means a homogenous group), others might say that the goal of feminism is for equality between men and women. Yet, equality on whose terms? Does achieving roles and privileges that are traditionally assigned to men count as equality? What about striving to have men wear dresses, earn 77 cents to every dollar a woman earns, be stay-at-home dads? What about equality on women’s terms? My point here is that equality can and will be seen differently by different people. The problem with the noble goal of equality is, equality on whose terms?

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